Earlier this year, when I attended the Jaipur Literary Festival and met up with some writer and translator friends, I heard the same industry concerns I’ve been hearing for the past four years. Many of these have been articulated more eloquently and even stridently on this site in several articles by publishing industry insiders and stakeholders: agents, editors, writers, translators, poets. Late last year, when I started querying for my own short story collection and literary translation, I also ran aground initially owing to some of these very issues.
It’s one thing when an emerging or first-time writer or translator runs into problems. We might say they’re still learning how the industry works. But, when established writers and translators and industry veterans also complain, it shows how deeply-rooted and complex these challenges have become.
The issues are wide-ranging and well-known:
- A lack of professionalism in responses to queries or submissions.
- Books commissioned or accepted on the basis of personal connections.
- Gatekeeper biases which then drive reader biases.
- Being asked for upfront money for book publication.
- Poor editing, which is often outsourced.
- Lack of a funds or grants system for translations.
- Challenges with securing copyright permission for translation work.
- Insufficiency of skilled translators.
- Lack of proper publicity and marketing even at the big publishing houses (unless you’re already a celebrity).
- Poor book distribution networks (with big chain stores asking for money to display books).
- Conflict-ridden and unskilled reviewing at limited news media venues.
- Book bloggers asking for money, not just free books.
- Literary festivals favouring politicos/celebrities.
- Award malpractices.
And, of course, there are the usual challenges of the industry being so small that it’s often the same folks moving from one publishing house to another, which causes both overall stagnation (or “incestuousness” as many industry insiders themselves are wont to joke) and a serious lack of opportunities for new talent to grow and make their mark. Smaller presses that do want to take risks and publish non-commercial works never manage to get visibility for their writers from the news media, which often chases political names and celebrity writers for reviews and interviews. And there’s plenty of dissatisfaction, also, with the latter when reviewers tend to grind personal axes or, indeed, wield such blunt instruments as to cause even more damage.
To be clear, these problems are not unique to India. They exist in varying degrees across the world in even more established publishing ecosystems. And ours is still a nascent and evolving one, where people are doing their best with the resources, training, mentoring, and services available to them. So this is not an attempt to point fingers at any particular people or firms.
In recent times, India has seen a resurgent growth in the power of writers for film, television, and digital media. In large part, this is due to the efforts of the Screenwriters’ Association, which had humble beginnings in the 1950s and went through several incarnations to become the significant entity it is today.
As an official trade union, its mission is to provide community and also protect, campaign, and lobby for, and promote, the “interests, rights, compensation and privileges of its members in all matters relating to their professional engagement and working conditions”. And while the organisation has had its ups and downs, it has truly been making an industry-wide impact with its current infrastructure and the many influential industry movers and shakers who actively support it.
In the UK, the Society of Authors has evolved and grown as a trade union over a century or so for “all types of writers, illustrators and literary translators, at all stages of their careers.” In addition to plenty of practical advice, resources, and support, it also administers various events, awards, and prizes for writers of all levels. Again, it enjoys the support of UK’s topmost writers as active board members and champions.
In the US, there’s the Association of Writers and Writers’ Programs (AWP). Beyond support, advocacy, resources, and community for writers of all stripes, its also counts among its members over 500 college and university creative writing programmes and more than 150 writers’ conferences and centres. In addition to ensuring a healthy, thriving publishing ecosystem, its mission is to “foster literary achievement, advance the art of writing as essential to a good education, and serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing.”
While all three of these example organisations are somewhat different in their scope and reach, what they have in common are these goals:
- Raising a strong collective voice to advocate for their members.
- Developing powerful online and offline literary communities where members support one another.
- Establishing best practices and hallmark standards for stakeholder organisations across the industry.
- Helping members connect with the widest possible audiences.
- Fostering and advancing the literary arts and achievements.
- Securing financial support from members, donors, funders, and sponsors to make all of the above possible (with, of course, full transparency and accountability).
In India, we see new literary festivals or literary awards emerging almost every year. While these do well to connect writers with each other and with readers, the communities they create tend to remain fragmented and transient. So their impact remains somewhat limited. A permanent, self-governing, and professionally-run association like the ones above could help us harness the power of these literary communities while also promoting more achievements and excellence across the entire publishing ecosystem.
If we, as individuals, are truly serious about enriching our literary culture, fostering and nurturing literary talent, and ensuring that literature continues to be a source of knowledge, change, creativity, entertainment, pleasure, and more, then, surely, we must come together and work on all of these things in specific and practical ways.
Jenny Bhatt is one of a group of writers and translators putting together a set-up team for Writers and Translators Association India (WTAI).